Photography by John Wrightenberry
As a child, Mike Davis got the chance to witness first-hand (in the best venue possible) what it means to use the land and it’s bounty to sustain life – he spent summers working on his grandfather’s farm near Dothan, Alabama. The farm’s cash crops were primarily peanuts and cotton, but like most family farms, there were also chickens, pigs, and a vegetable garden, as well as figs, pears, and scuppernongs.
Mike fondly recalls driving a tractor at age eight, and jumping into a trailer with his brother to “smush” down the cotton so they could fit more in before it went to market. The overall experience of nurturing and feeding plants and animals, so they could eventually be consumed (whether by his family or the markets) has stuck with Mike throughout his career, eventually culminating in the bounty that we all can share at his West Columbia restaurant: Terra.
Of course the path to Terra wasn’t all that simple. Mike started out as a business major at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. While there, he began working at an Italian restaurant to earn some spending money. The pace and satisfaction that he got from the kitchen work led him to seek out formal culinary training after he graduated.
So Mike moved to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University. In order to immerse himself in the culinary arts, he not only put himself through academic rigors, but also took a job at the revered Magnolia’s restaurant. While he learned various cooking techniques at school, he also learned about scratch cooking at Magnolia’s – a technique that entails using no processed foods and creating all dishes from very basic ingredients. Gastronomy is as varied as there are cultures and regions throughout the world, so the amount of knowledge involved can sometimes seem overwhelming. But Mike took a look around and told himself, “I can do this if I apply myself.”
After finishing at Johnson & Wales, it didn’t take long for Mike to decide where to begin his career. When you love food and music as much as he does, what better place to go than New Orleans? He scouted several restaurants there; and then, confident that he would join one of those restaurants, he got married and went on his honeymoon before getting started. This was right around September 11, 2001. As the country reeled in the aftermath, none of the restaurants that he’d selected were hiring except James Beard award winning chef Susan Spicer’s restaurant, Bayona. Although the position didn’t quite match his vision – he was working at a sous chef’s salary, but doing a chef’s job – he didn’t want to squander the opportunity to work under a chef with the talent to produce soulful, eclectic dishes with as diverse an influence as Latino or German, but still classically executed.
Eventually he and wife, Taje, started a family. Consequently, Mike needed a “better paying gig.” So he moved back to Alabama and took a job at corporate-owned Cobalt in Birmingham. His intuitional aversion to the corporate environment proved true – the more he demonstrated his expertise, the more he was asked to do. Rather than being independent, or at least a partner in the business, he quickly became an over-worked cog in a wheel.
At about the time that Mike was thinking of doing something different, Chef Frank Stitt’s cookbook touting the slow food philosophy hit the stores. Mike took note of the philosophy, and it solidified a passion that had been lingering in the back of Mike’s mind for some time. He wrote Chef Stitt a letter and subsequently began working in his restaurant, Chez Fonfon. Chef Stitt promoted the Euro/French model of cooking dishes using seasonal local foods and techniques. He had been on the cutting edge of this philosophy in the U.S., working with Alice Waters who founded the Slow Food Movement in California. Mike saw Chef Stitt as a beacon after being chewed up by the corporate restaurant. He wanted to apply the new philosophy to traditional Alabama and Southern cuisine.
After some time defining his vision under Chef Stitt at Chez Fonfon, Mike began looking for an opportunity to achieve the dream of having his own restaurant. In looking for an environment with potential, Columbia came to mind (since Taje was a native). He scouted the city and found the perfect location at 100 State Street in West Columbia.
It’s common knowledge that Columbia is fertile soil for the corporate restaurant model that Mike shuns. However, Mike saw this as a void where a restaurant built upon his seasonal and sustainable food philosophy could thrive. He admits that it’s a challenge to open any restaurant, especially one like Terra. Indeed, his biggest challenge (one that’s critical to any successful, first-rate restaurant) has been finding competent, passionate people who share his philosophy and vision. Three key employees who fit the bill at Terra are General Manager Howard Jarrett, Mixologist Andy Haddock, and Sous Chef Joby Wetzel.
In addition to employees, Mike has set about building relationships with like-minded suppliers (perhaps harkening back to the simpler time of his childhood on the farm). He’s always on the lookout for local growers and suppliers who are doing new things, like a farmer he met at Columbia’s Tomato Festival who had the most succulent tomatoes Mike’s ever tasted. But they’re only available at certain times of the year. Consequently, Terra’s menu changes with the seasons and availability of foods. This keeps things interesting and enables Mike and Terra’s patrons to discover new dishes together.
One of Mike’s goals is to get better every day at what he’s doing in his reach for perfection with every plate of food. One way he achieves this is by encouraging his staff to dine at other restaurants and explore and eat new things. This is one small way in which he’s trying to make Columbia more of a food destination where people “live to eat, instead of just eat to live.”
Another extension of Mike’s philosophy comes in the form of the dish he suggests for the home chef to try. One of his trusted suppliers, Mark from Abundant Seafood in Charleston, delivered a triggerfish that Mike visualized grilled, with blood orange, and sitting atop a bed of English pea and blue crab orzo with avocado coulis. This recipe makes a perfect springtime dinner for two paired with a zesty white wine like the Austrian Gobelsburger.